Battle of the Blowhards

Amid the drone of the AM airwaves, Cleveland's most entertaining sideshow has sprung to life.

As another summer morning crawls toward noon, the sun bakes the Cleveland air to a salty stew. What better time to bitch about Larry Dolan?

He's cheap, they're crying in Chardon. He's dumb, they're yelling in Euclid. And he's not even the worst problem, Greg Brinda tries to explain. "The problem," he says, leaning into the microphone, "is that we still have to watch them for two more months."

It's another Monday inside the Broadview Heights studio of WKNR, Cleveland's all-sports radio station. For the last two hours, Brinda and his co-host, Kendall Lewis, have been taking swipes at the sports world's low-hanging fruit: Browns running back William Green, disgruntled Cavalier forward Lamond Murray, the dispirited Tribe.

The station bills the veteran duo as "brash, bold, and never boring." But today, the rhetorical guns remain safely holstered. Even the affront du jour, a possible baseball strike, elicits little bile. When the topic comes up, Brinda offers but a jaded lament. "That's what America is all about," he says, "millionaires on the picket lines."

You'll likely find more trash talk at a Rotarian lunch.

But after the show, there is one topic for which Brinda and Lewis have little trouble mustering agitation: a 55-year-old former golf course manager with a cement mixer for a voice -- Mike Trivisonno. "He's got the numbers," says Brinda of the popular WTAM radio host, warming up to a backhanded compliment. "I guess it says there are a lot of people who like to be pandered to."

Consider it another shot in Cleveland's most entertaining pissing match. In one corner is the city's king of sports radio, Trivisonno, whose evening drive-time show regularly tops the ratings. On air and in print, he has been a one-man radio wrecking ball, dismissing WKNR as boring and pitiful, a station whose hosts couldn't draw ratings if people were paid to listen. "I know five or six callers who would do just as good a job," he says.

In the other corner sits almost everyone at WKNR, who considers Trivisonno unprofessional and ignorant, a world-class gasbag who shills for every team in town. "I think he's a despicable excuse for a broadcaster," says WKNR morning-drive host Bruce Drennan, who -- for good measure -- often refers to Trivisonno as a "piece of shit." "Anyone with any degree of intelligence can't possibly enjoy that show."

Welcome to the War of the Words. There are, of course, listeners, ratings, and money in play. But amid the drone of the AM airwaves, the barrage of barbs and bitches has served another purpose: It signals just how bad Cleveland talk radio has become.

Like Sokolowski's and Stadium Mustard, Mike Trivisonno is a Cleveland thing. A onetime regular caller who became the most popular host in the city, his rise to success is a Rust Belt fairy tale. "I'm just a regular guy," he once told a reporter. "I have no radio broadcasting background. None. That's what makes the whole thing."

Trivisonno has always presented himself as a simple man, and his success, to hear him tell it, stems from a simple proposition: He understands Cleveland and tells it like it is, no matter who may be offended. "I'm not afraid to say what other people are really thinking," he says. "People say to me, 'I can't believe you said that.' I don't think other talk-show hosts in town get that."

Perhaps not, but the show hardly pushes the limits of talk-radio standards. Between constant breaks for news, traffic, weather, and sports, Trivisonno takes calls and rants about whatever is on his mind. Sometimes it's about sports. Often it seems to be about whatever appeared in that morning's Plain Dealer. One day, he's pissed about Frank Gruttadauria's plea bargain. On another, it's PD columnist Sam Fulwood's Elvis-bashing. On yet another, he explains how he has no respect for drug dealers.

Even Trivisonno's supposedly controversial fare often comes straight from the talk-show starter kit. Women, homosexuals, and politicians are frequent targets. A typical joke: What's the perfect breakfast for a man? He's sitting at the kitchen table. His son's picture is on the front of the Wheaties box. His daughter is on the front of Business Week. His girlfriend is on the cover of Playboy . . . And his wife is on the side of the milk carton.

Not that Trivisonno's show isn't entertaining now and again -- or at least compellingly weird. When he was defending Elvis's honor against Fulwood's assaults, he pointed out that Fulwood is black and that Johnny Mathis ripped off white people's music. Then he declared that "white men built this country" and moved on to the topics of American Indians, stirrups, and riding horses bareback.

Not all of Trivisonno's targets are boilerplate bogeymen. For example, he refers to Plain Dealer sports columnist Roger Brown as "that imbecile Roger Brown" for regularly criticizing the show and its low-brow tone. Anyone else who works in radio is also fair game.

For years, Trivisonno has been notorious for taking shots at other hosts. Les Levine recalls working at former sports-talk station WHK in the mid-'90s, after Trivisonno had been hired by WTAM. "He starts ripping me to shreds, saying how stupid I was," says Levine, who has known Trivisonno for years. "I said, 'Mike, what are you doing? Did I do something?' He said, 'Oh, you know, it's just radio.'"

WKNR, however, seems to hold a special place in Trivisonno's crosshairs. Thanks to fate and the fickle ways of the industry, the all-sports station remains the only outfit in town airing programming that's even close to the sports-talk genre Trivisonno has polished on WTAM.

These days, it's hard to make it through a Trivisonno show without hearing him take a shot at WKNR's hosts. He rips Brinda and Lewis for being boring. "I turned the radio on, and they were talking about playing video football," he says. "That's real interesting -- for about 10 percent of the audience."

He rips morning host Bruce Drennan for being ignorant about sports, and he rips WKNR host Kenny Roda for everything. "Have they ever done compelling radio in their life over there?" Trivisonno recently said on the air. "It seems like they go out and hire the worst talent they can find."

In early July, when the Indians held a press conference to discuss the firing of manager Charlie Manuel, WTAM carried it live. Every time WKNR Indians reporter Ken Silverstein asked a question, WTAM cut away to Trivisonno so Silverstein couldn't be heard.

Trivisonno says his hits are just part of his personality, what makes him him. His producer, Marty Allen, compares him to Muhammad Ali, who never stopped ripping opponents, even when he was champ.

"I like to take shots," explains Trivisonno. "You've got guys going in the Broadcasting Hall of Fame who've never had a top show. How does that happen?"

Trivisonno tends to make it sound as if he's performing a public service when he goes after other hosts. He can't stand bad radio, and neither should you. "When I listen to these shows, they're so pitiful, it's amazing," he says.

WKNR might best be described as a tribute to the radio industry's upheaval. Since deregulation in 1996, it has been passed around like a bad case of mono, with three owners in the last three years.

The station's studios, located in a shoebox in Broadview Heights, speak to its nomadic existence. The mint-green paint on the front desk is peeling. Ceiling tiles look as if they haven't been touched since 1978. One half-expects to hear the theme from WKRP in Cincinnati and see Les Nessman round the corner.

Since last year, the guerrilla feel has extended beyond the building. Much of it comes courtesy of Drennan, whom WKNR hired in the spring of 2001 to do its morning show. Drennan has bounced around Cleveland radio and television since the late '70s, in a career that included a long stint with WTAM, hosting the show that followed Trivisonno's.

After moving to WKNR, however, Drennan wasted little time shivving his old employers. He made thinly veiled references to Trivisonno, WTAM, and several other people who worked for the station.

The whole point, of course, was to draw some fire, which didn't take long. Trivisonno soon labeled WKNR an "unprofessional station" in the pages of The Plain Dealer and said that Drennan was "taking their standards even lower than their ratings."

Drennan, of course, was only too happy to reply: "Trivisonno talking about showing class is laughable to me," he retorted. "I seriously doubt he can even spell class."

Indeed, Drennan -- who has the face of a pudgy F. Lee Bailey and the combativeness to match -- loves it when Trivisonno says anything about the station. "I don't care if he was allowed, on air, to call me a motherfucker," Drennan says. "I'd love it. The more publicity, the better."

Yet Drennan's feistiness hasn't been the only change at the station. In January, WKNR adopted "The Truth" as its slogan. Because the station doesn't carry Indians, Cavs, or Browns games, it also doesn't have the financial entanglements that would compromise its coverage of the teams, says Program Director Steve Legerski. "We can honestly and accurately report on the status of a sports team as it relates to the listener," he says.

It's also a conspicuous shot at WTAM and the perception that the station is in bed with the teams it covers. "You think you're hearing the truth about those teams on that radio station," says Drennan. "No way. Everybody on that station is bought and paid for by the Browns, Indians, and Cavs."

To folks at WKNR, no one is more suspect than Trivisonno, who routinely lands the biggest fish: Dolan, Mark Shapiro, and Carmen Policy. "Trivisonno kisses ass," says Drennan. "I had a caller one time, when I was still over [at WTAM], that said, 'Drennan, you're the only one over there who tells it like it is on that station. Trivisonno has his head so far up Policy's ass, all he can see are his toes wiggling.'"

Trivisonno's solicitous tone during interviews with team officials -- so at odds with his demeanor with callers on the show -- doesn't exactly help. When the Indians traded Bartolo Colon, Trivisonno interviewed Dolan. After the owner explained why he had traded away the team's ace, Trivisonno gushed: "Larry, I understand what you're doing. I appreciate what you're doing. Because I want a world's championship, I just don't want to compete."

Mike Wallace, he ain't.

But it's also not hard to detect more than a little jealousy in the complaints. A frequent barb, for example, is that Trivisonno is a product of circumstance. He was in the right place at the right time. He isn't a real sports guy. He wrestles porn stars and does fart jokes. He only proves that the Jerry Springer Nation is alive and well in Cleveland.

Says Kendall Lewis, of Trivisonno's ratings: "I think it says more about the market than it does about him."

"Unfortunately, you can make a name for yourself if you appeal to the lowest common denominator of our society," echoes Drennan.

Translation: Trivisonno's listeners are blithering idiots.

For WKNR, the underdog, such hyperbole serves an understandable purpose. Sling enough arrows, and one may eventually stick. Harder for many to comprehend are Trivisonno's motives. "If you're Trivisonno, and you're No. 1, A) be real happy that you are, and B) why would you look over your shoulder?" says Levine. "They're the ones who should be chasing you."

Indeed, on paper the rivalry isn't even a contest. WTAM is the only AM station consistently among the top five in the market. In the last ratings period, it came out on top. Trivisonno was second in his time period, behind only the syndicated Opie and Anthony Show (a show since canceled, after broadcasting a couple allegedly having sex in St. Patrick's Cathedral) on WXTM-FM 92.3.

WKNR, meanwhile, has long been at the bottom of the local radio barrel. Though its ratings are comparable to other all-sports stations, it regularly draws less than half the audience of WTAM. Says Levine: "They're a fly on the elephant's ass."

It's easy to treat the whole pissing match as a bit of low comedy, always good for some laughs. There's Trivisonno's massacre of the English language. There's Kenny Roda's pubescent preoccupation with "hotties." And there's Brinda and Lewis, whose odd rapport often makes it seem as if they don't like each other.

But to do so misses the fact that the fight has given listeners a glimpse of something most people in the industry already know: Cleveland radio blows. "It's the same tired voices that you've always heard," says Levine. "It's the same sound today as it was 10 years ago."

Echoes Chuck Booms, who does a nationally syndicated sports show, Kiley and Booms, from a studio in Independence: "Cleveland radio in general -- not only talk, but everything -- is not fresh . . . It's retreads."

Even Trivisonno says that Cleveland radio is "at an all-time low."

Nowhere is this more apparent than in sports talk. For all the salvos Trivisonno and WKNR hurl at each other, there is plenty of criticism to go around. On any given day, it is hard to find anyone with the capacity to engage listeners. Contrarians aren't tolerated. Context, history, and nuance are seldom discussed. It is, in short, only slightly more inspired than standard barroom talk.

"As a rule, there's not enough diversification of opinion," says Fox Sports Net Ohio General Manager Steve Liverani, who has worked in Florida and New York. "I just get the sense that, when something happens in this town, everybody has the same take on it."

Instead of informing and challenging fans, too often Cleveland radio mirrors them, he says. "It's your job to know more than the average guy. If it isn't, something's wrong. Your opinion should be different from Joe in Solon."

The Indians provide a handy example. Save for Trivisonno's sweet talk, there's seldom a thought expressed on sports-talk radio that doesn't conform to the Dolan-sucks-Shapiro's-an-idiot party line. "You have to go outside to get a more objective opinion," says Liverani. "And when you do, you find that a lot of baseball experts agree with what the Indians are doing."

But that would mean a host might have to explain why the Indians will be crappy for a while. It's a proposition that may go over better than anyone thinks. After all, mediocrity is something Cleveland radio listeners certainly understand.

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